Red Rising by Pierce Brown

Red RisingThere was a survey a few years back that business leaders are four times more likely to be psychopaths than the general population[1]. Generally speaking, people in charge get to positions of power by having a callous streak, which gets rewarded, and by disregarding others’ feelings. Are these people born or are they made?

What of dystopic science fiction? Surely if psychopaths continue to rise to the top in society, a dystopia shall surely be inevitable? The rich and powerful will only become more rich and more powerful. And what of the under classes in today’s society. What will become of them? I wonder if these thoughts were bubbling away at Pierce Brown before he formulated the plot for Red Rising.

Set on Mars quite some time in the future, we meet Darrow, who is a Helldiver in deep caves, below the surface of the red planet. He believes he is working to get Mars ready for when the people of Earth come to colonise it. He’s been mining helium-3, as have his ancestors, for a few hundred years, in preparation for terraforming. His community are poor and only have contact with the outside world with a holoCan, the future of TV.

When you open the book, there is a map, similar to ones you might find in swords and sorcery fantasy novels. And so as the story progresses, I was a tad confused as to what it related to. This was sub-surface Mars, not a hidden corner of Middle Earth. Instead of elves and wizards, we learn about Darrow, his life and his relationships in the opening chapters. He is young (16), but married to Eo, who tries to teach him about slavery. Then tragedy strikes. And we learn a bit about the type of person Darrow is. We learn more about the type of society that has developed. But then we learn that everything has been an illusion, a lie. Darrow is taken out of his environment and discovers the truths about Mars and the solar system. He also becomes a tool, a weapon, which some would use to infiltrate and overthrow the masters. You see, Darrow is a Red, who it turns out are not just the workers and the miners, but the bottom of the rung. And there are many other classes – the Pinks who pleasure, the scientist Yellows, the Blue navigators and the Golds who lead. There are Silvers and Coppers and Obsidians and more – all a bit Brave New World. Now Darrow must become a Gold, because that is the only way revolution can happen and the only way his people can rise. Reds against Golds, socialists against the rich.

Darrow is changed to fit in with the Golds, passes some tests and then taken to the Institute, which is where the map comes in. He is built by those who would seek to overthrow their masters. Now he has to forge allegiances, battle enemies, discover truths and win. Nothing else matters other than the win.

When reading Red Rising I felt almost like I was reading different books. The first third was proper dystopic science fiction. We see the struggles of the under classes against the psychopathic leaders. We see warnings about the path we currently tread. Darrow is taken from his familiar environment and told some hard truths about his place in society. I really enjoyed finding out about how humanity had moved into the solar system.

In the middle third, it felt like a standard historical fantasy. The Golds base their society on ancient Greece. So I guess this is a deliberate diversion. It does, for a while, feel like the science fiction has gone. It is a struggle for survival. Battling the elements, hunger and the wolves. A quest for fire. Allies become enemies. Tactics work and then fail. Houses rise and fall. Death. And the violence! There is no shirking of that by Brown. He loves a whipping, or a dismemberment or a swordfight.

The third section returns more to science fiction. We’re still in the Institute, but the duplicities are revealed, which while not obvious, are expected. Clearly a society this fragile, built upon a House of Cards, has many weak points and many lies. And Darrow starts to rise.

The question is, of course, all about Darrow. Is he the person he was in the mines? He’s been the victim of tragedy, driven by injustice, constructed by rebels, forged by battle. He learns, adjusts, fails, rises, falls and rises again. Is he a psychopath? Surely he must be in order to lead? And was it already within him? After all, he started out as a thrill-seeking Helldriver!

Brown’s book is as frustrating as it is enjoyable. I understand that Darrow and the other characters had to be put through their ordeals, trials, failuresMars_atmosphere and more during the battles in the Institute, but I found the middle third simply less interesting. The other comment is that while this section was full of these trials, you knew Darrow would get through them, as the book is announced as a trilogy. He faced no real peril. Indeed, during the phase when he is transformed from a Red to a Gold, it seemed very easy. He sailed through school with only a minor glitch. I would have liked more of a struggle in the first section – as the miner beats privileged and educated Golds – and a quicker, less violent middle section, before back onto the genuinely interesting and exciting climatic third.

All that said, Brown has created an interesting, if not overly original science fiction world on Mars, with some great, complex, protagonists. Brown’s female characters are equal to the males, which is good to see in science fiction, too. He writes very well with an interesting voice, and when Darrow expresses his pain – especially when referring to Eo  – you do go with it. I think that’s why this is such a good book. You believe the emotion and you believe the oppression and you believe the rage and violence in equal measure, and that shows the quality of the writing. Red Rising tells us about the rich getting the richer and the slavery of the under classes which affect our lives today. But it is also a book about family and also has a touch of romance. It is a book about the violence of adolescence, gangs and friendships. It is book not only about tough choices, but occasionally about wrong choices. Although we have yet to see how Darrow’s final choice pans out. It is a flawed but highly enjoyable read.


[1] See the work of Dr Paul Babiak and Dr Robert Hare

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